In-House Counsel and Pro Bono Efforts: A Perfect Partnership


Pro bono service has frequently been a vexing issue for in-house counsel. Many legal department lawyers handle pro bono matters for a variety of reasons, including the desire to help those in need of assistance, to enhance their own legal skills or to fulfill their ethical obligations to serve the community. Currently, corporations in growing numbers are seeking to enhance their community responsibilities. For those companies, pro bono participation by in-house lawyers can be a valuable contribution. However, despite the readiness of corporations and in-house lawyers, the opportunities for in-house pro bono participation tend to be isolated in all but the largest legal departments due to a lack of resources available to locate, commit to and supervise those opportunities.

To meet this need, partnerships between legal departments and law firms are being formed in increasing numbers. One of the more successful ventures is the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta (PBPA ). PBPA provides a valuable platform for in-house counsel and lawyers in law firms to combine their efforts to meet the needs of the local community. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rachel Spears, Executive Director of PBPA , and Happy Perkins, Vice President and General Counsel at GE Energy, PBPA Board Member and frequent participant in various pro bono efforts, about their successful efforts.

Burton: Happy, how do you think pro bono work for an in-house attorney differs from pro bono for a law firm attorney?

Perkins: Many in-house attorneys are transactional lawyers like me, and it can be very challenging for transactional attorneys (whether in-house or at law firms) to use their skills in doing pro bono work. Litigators can easily find pro bono opportunities that use their skills to help people in need. When I came to GE Energy, I struggled to come up with pro bono opportunities for our attorneys, most of whom are transactional lawyers. That is why I helped to found Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta in 2005. We closely modeled the organization after the Pro Bono Partnership based in New York, which GE also actively supports. The Pro Bono Partnership model pairs volunteer attorneys with nonprofit organizations rather than individuals. Nonprofits have many of the same legal needs as forprofit businesses but cannot afford to pay an attorney. PBPA matches these organizations with attorneys that can help with corporate governance, contracts, employment, intellectual property, real estate and tax. Under Rachel’s direction, we have had more success than I had ever dreamed of at the beginning.

Burton: Rachel, as the principal driver of a great deal of these efforts, why do you think these efforts have been so successful?

Spears: Well, from the beginning it has been a true partnership fulfilling a need in the community with respect to nonlitigation advice for nonprofits by tapping into a willing resource looking for pro bono opportunities outside of the litigation arena.

The beauty of PBPA is that we help transactional lawyers, both in-house and at law firms, to do pro bono work that is interesting and rewarding and within their areas of expertise. We have foun that when lawyers do that, they get a measure of satisfaction that is higher than they may get from doing work in an area in which they are not as familiar or skilled.

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